The great German, then American, director Ernst Lubitsch is currently featured as FilmStruck‘s “director of the week,” and they have a generous selection of his films spanning most of his career. A master of deft and witty romantic comedies, his legendary “Lubitsch touch” began in the teens and graced a wider range of films than his celebrated comedy films.
The Oyster Princess
Lubitsch’s first feature-length comedy (1919), about an American millionaire trying to acquire a noble title for his daughter by marrying her off to a Prussian prince, is an unalloyed delight—a perfect rejoinder to those critics who maintain that the director only found “the Lubitsch touch” after moving to Hollywood in the 1920s. The satire is sharp, and the visual settings are sumptuous and gracefully handled. With Ossi Owalda, Harry Liedtke, and Victor Janson. 60 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
One of a series of historical epics that the young German director Lubitsch concocted for star Pola Negri—a series that eventually landed Hollywood contracts for both. This 1920 film is an adaptation of Max Reinhardt’s stage production Sumurun, with Negri as an ambitious dancing girl courted by a lascivious sheikh and the pathetic hunchback (played by Lubitsch himself) who is the leader of her troupe. 75 min.
The Merry Widow
The last and finest of Lubitsch’s musicals (1934), based on the Franz Lehar operetta and retooled with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Maurice Chevalier, in his last good role, is the prince; Jeanette MacDonald, on the brink of her fateful meeting with Nelson Eddy, is the widow. MGM hired the Lubitsch-Chevalier-MacDonald team away from Paramount, and apparently went all-out on this production to show up the competition. Lubitsch brilliantly exploits Cedric Gibbons’s opulent sets, but his genius is most evident in the film’s final poignancy—a farewell to the genre he helped to create. Also known as The Lady Dances. 99 min. —Dave Kehr
The Shop Around the Corner
There are no art deco nightclubs, shimmering silk gowns, or slamming bedroom doors to be seen, but this 1940 film is one of Lubitsch’s finest and most enduring works, a romantic comedy of dazzling range that takes place almost entirely within the four walls of a leather-goods store in prewar Budapest. James Stewart is the earnest, slightly awkward young manager; Margaret Sullavan is the new sales clerk who gets on his nerves—and neither realizes that they are partners in a passionate romance being carried out through the mails. Interwoven with subplots centered on the other members of the shop’s little family, the romance proceeds through Lubitsch’s brilliant deployment of point of view, allowing the audience to enter the perceptions of each individual character at exactly the right moment to develop maximum sympathy and suspense. With Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and Felix Bressart. 97 min. —Dave Kehr
Heaven Can Wait
Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it’s about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast—Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington—is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance. 112 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum